Text/Book, the Toronto Standard‘s books column, is written by Emily M. Keeler and Chris Randle, plus occasional guests.
While they say that “the past is a foreign country” (and by “they” I mean people who quote L. P. Hartley’s killer opening line in The Go-Between), we don’t have an equally pat way to describe the future. I guess you could use “the future is now,” which we’ve kind of been saying over and over since the mid-fifties. Or maybe William Gibson’s got the best contender for the go-to pithy line: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” But if both of our handy phrases tell us that we’re already living in the future, well, I want a new one. So does Miles Klee, I think — hopefully not the terrifying addict’s nightmare he’s envisioned in Ivyland, controlled by Big Pharma and afflicted with a pandemic that may not exist.
Ivyland is about a group of guys who went to high school together in an alternate New Jersey. Jumping around chronologically, the novel is divided into sections written in different voices, an amphetamine-fueled heteroglossia. The world of its characters is run by Endless, an all-powerful pharmaceutical company that keeps changing Ivyland’s topography, renaming and rerouting streets at will. Aidan and his childhood best friend Henri live together in an old house, and the book opens with their former school bus driver trying to make a pilgrimage to the newly formed miracle in their front yard, a tree struck by lightning that has taken the appearance of the Virgin Mary. Aidan tries to manage the cult forming in his yard as Henri languishes with a semi-psychotic illness that may or not be the H12 pandemic. Elsewhere, addicts are performing risky illegal surgeries that ostensibly inoculate the public against the virus. There doesn’t seem to be too much technological or linguistic innovation in this near-future, though, aside from a general anesthetic that somehow doesn’t even put you out, just blocks your ability to perceive pain.
Klee is a fine writer. His prose often tickles — I certainly laughed out loud a few times — and one chapter in particular, where Aidan and his astronaut brother Cal simultaneously narrate a family memory, proves to be an especially exciting experiment with the ways language and time and memory work in tandem. Other experiments left me feeling a little cold, like the chapter written from the perspective of Grady, an adult with a cognitive deficiency that leaves him living perpetually with the thought-processing power of a four-year-old. Ivyland is at its strongest when Klee is writing close to his characters as they think about family, about love. When Aidan reflects on how long he’s know Henri, or on his feelings for his high school crush Pheobe, or when Cal remembers a troubling childhood scene at a parade and how his mother had reacted, the book almost feels alive.
But Ivyland doesn’t strike me as being quite dystopic enough. I realize I’m being kind of selfish, but that’s just how I like to read. For me, for pleasure, etc. I wanted the book to take more joy in the invention of a new world, to play with details in a different way. I wanted technological terror, or something more satirical, I think. Dystopian fiction, speculative fiction, extrapolates from the present into an extreme future, whereas Klee’s strange Ivyland seems largely disconnected from the world we actually live in. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you.) He’s so focused on the perils of an increasingly muddled divide between corporate power and public life, and a population that appears semi-lobotomized by pharmaceutical dependency, that at times it kind of feels like you’re reading a novel published by Adbusters. But, like, if Thomas Pynchon wrote for Adbusters.